Clinton's strategic TV blowup.

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Sept. 25 2006 6:32 PM

Fox in the Henhouse

Clinton's strategic TV blowup.

Former President Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Former President Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton has provided us with this week's partisan sorting mechanism. If you are a right-winger, you see his outburst over charges that he didn't do enough to kill Osama Bin Laden as an overheated act of public ass-covering. You're also likely to react to his criticisms about the Bush administration by rushing to the inevitable safe ground: sex jokes. A Fox News anchor helpfully pointed out that he hadn't seen Clinton that angry since he denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. For the left-wingers, the video showed Chris Wallace to be a partisan Fox News hack who wanted to sandbag Clinton. Wallace's questions were within the bounds of the interview's ground rules and were fair enough (though he weaseled by saying it was viewers who wanted him to ask Clinton about Bin Laden).

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

Bill Clinton wasn't sandbagged, because he is a smart politician. He just spent several weeks fighting ABC over its interpretation of his administration's hunt for Bin Laden. He knew the question was coming and he took advantage of it. Forty-three days before the election, he has provided a moment to rally party activists and attack the GOP at the heart of its perceived strength on handling terrorism.

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Democrats should rejoice that Wallace was as tough as he was. If he had been supine, fearful of another 3,000-word report from Media Matters, the party and Clinton would have been denied an opportunity. And Clinton would have been disappointed, at least judging from his spokesperson's remarks afterward: "We're fully aware of Fox News' and Chris Wallace's agenda, and President Clinton came in prepared to respond to any attack on his record. When Wallace questioned his record on terrorism, he responded forcefully, as any Democrat would or should." In other words, he went in loaded for bear and blasted like Cheney as soon as he spotted one.

Did Clinton come across a little unhinged? Sure, but that's an advantage in a midterm election where party passion matters. Liberal activists want to see their Washington representatives fight back the way Clinton did. This was a rallying cry and a signal to other members of the party to do the same. Clinton can go to individual districts to campaign for competitive candidates, or he can sell the same message wholesale by banging the table in a single performance on Fox.

Clinton didn't just get the blood pumping among liberal activists. He made a policy critique aimed at the GOP election strategy designed to promote Republicans as the only party competent enough to handle terrorist threats. Each day people are discussing Clinton's performance or Wallace's questioning they will also be discussing which president did more to try to kill Bin Laden. Articles will revisit Bush's Aug. 6, 2001 *, Presidential Daily Brief in which he was told al-Qaida was planning a major attack and to hijack planes, and producers will reinterview Richard Clarke, who says Bush dropped the ball. (Clarke's book, which is highly critical of the Bush team's pre-9/11 terror efforts, is in the top 10 on Amazon.)

The former president is also offering his wife the kind of help candidates don't usually get until they bring on their vice president. Bill can attack the right and mend fences with liberal activists, which benefits Hillary but also allows her the distance to stay above the fray.

If Bill Clinton becomes a hero of the liberal activists and liberal bloggers, it will be an extraordinary turnaround. Left-leaning bloggers who play a role in their party's politics usually savage him for triangulating and deal-making as president. Activists conjure him along with the DLC when describing policies that they consider too moderate, corporate, or otherwise insufficiently progressive. They have transferred onto his wife their suspicions about his willingness to deal away principle.

But Clinton's push-back against ABC over its 9/11 dramatization, which included unflattering fictional scenes about his administration, started his latest comeback. He even hosted a lunch with bloggers to plot strategy. The Fox interview is his second performance that not only attacks left-wing bogeymen but seeks to set the record straight against what liberals see as a tide of propaganda from the right and amnesia from the mainstream media. His attack on the "right wing" was an echo of his wife's famous complaint about the "vast right wing conspiracy" she claimed was out to get her husband during his tenure. Back then, Hillary drew attention to herself to help her husband's cause. Now, by defending himself, Bill Clinton helps hers.

Correction, Sept. 26, 2006: This article originally and incorrectly stated that the presidential briefing occurred on Aug. 8, 2001. (Return to the corrected sentence.)